California Dreamin’: Meth Addiction & Recovery in Los Angeles

Editorial Team

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From a distance, California may appear to be a land of golden sunshine, carefree living, and hazy, lazy summer days spent down on the boardwalk, but, in 2021, with record numbers of people across the U.S. dying from drug overdose, appearances can easily be deceptive. Los Angeles, in particular – the second most populous metropolitan area in the country – is often referred to as the “City of Angels”; however, with its ever-increasing methamphetamine problem, alongside the ever-present opioid epidemic, it’s fast becoming a “City of Addicts,” and, right now, each one of them is in desperate need of their own angel or two.

In fact, during 2020, as the world was struggling with the vast array of damaging social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, in some areas of California, there were more deaths from fatal drug overdoses than there were from the pandemic itself. Would you believe, for example, that San Diego residents were 3 times more likely to die from a drug overdose than they were from the coronavirus in 2020? An astounding statistic, but actually true.

Record Overdose Mortality in the U.S., in California, and in Los Angeles

This was during a period of record deaths from drug overdose across the U.S. Announced only recently, and according to the National Center of Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were a record 93,331 fatal drug overdoses in the U.S. during the 12-month period between December 2019, and December 2020 – an increase of 29.4% nationally.

It’s huge, it’s historic, it’s unheard-of, unprecedented.” – Daniel Ciccarone, professor of medicine, University of California, San Francisco, CA

In California, during the same period, overall drug overdose mortality increased from 6,538 deaths in 2019 to 9,538 deaths in 2020 – an alarming, above-average increase of 45.9%.

If you look at overdose deaths nationally that involve psychostimulants like methamphetamine, 2020 was a record-breaking year in that respect, too, with an increase of 46% in deaths where at least one psychostimulant was present.

Furthermore, in Los Angeles County, according to data from the LA County Coroner’s Office, there were more methamphetamine overdose fatalities than that reported on death certificates. In reality, according to the data, there were 1,389 methamphetamine-related deaths in 2020 – a huge increase of 68% from 2019, which saw 822 deaths.

Illicit Meth Drug Supply Now Being “Increasingly Poisoned” with Fentanyl

Lastly, when you have an increasing methamphetamine problem happening in the middle of an opioid epidemic, just as we are seeing in Los Angeles, the very last thing you need is for the separate highly addictive and potent substances in question – meth and opioids – to somehow combine their damaging impact in some way. 

Sadly, however, that is exactly what we saw in 2020, as the record number of overdose fatalities clearly demonstrates, and it is what we are seeing now, as the Mexican drug cartels and U.S. drug producers and trafficking organizations seek to boost their profits by mixing powerful opioids like fentanyl into their methamphetamine and cocaine drug supplies, making them far more potent and far more dangerous.

“What’s really driving the surge in overdoses is this increasingly poisoned drug supply. Nearly all of this increase is fentanyl contamination in some way. Heroin is contaminated. Cocaine is contaminated. Methamphetamine is contaminated.” – Shannon Monnat, associate professor of sociology, Syracuse University, New York

Although there’s naltrexone sprays available for a suspected opioid overdose, there’s no similar reversal medication for an overdose from methamphetamine, and although there’s now a number of different vaccines available for COVID-19, there’s no such vaccine for chronic substance addiction.

Los Angeles & The (New) Rise in Methamphetamine Use

Even though Los Angeles (and California, for that matter) has a reputation in other parts of the U.S. as a kind of laid-back, marijuana-smoking utopia, it has long had an issue with one illicit drug in particular – methamphetamine (or meth). In fact, the word “issue” is a misleading understatement as it was once referred to as the “California Methamphetamine Epidemic” – a decade-long battle that had seen constantly increasing numbers of overdose deaths and hospitalizations.

Meth Free Los Angeles

Source: County of Los Angeles Public Health

Between 2008 and 2018, according to county statistics, meth-related deaths in the city of Los Angeles and the rest of L.A. County increased tenfold, from 43 to 435. By the end of 2018, methamphetamine was involved in 44% of all drug overdose deaths within the county limits. Although intensive efforts by L.A. County’s Public Health Department have curbed the epidemic to a degree, the signs of increasing use and addiction are there now again.

Methamphetamine: L.A.’s “Deadly Threat”

In an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times in December 2020, California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote, “Meth addiction isn’t new, but it has quickly emerged in recent years as a particularly deadly threat, and Los Angeles has been hard-hit.”

Los Angeles and the rest of California are not alone either in regard to the re-emergence of meth. By the end of 2019, according to data from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s “2019 National Drug Threat Assessment,” the availability of meth in the U.S. was growing quickly as street prices declined. Those increases continued in 2020, even though prices started to rise again because of COVID-19, and, between March and May of last year, one U.S. laboratory found that nationwide urine drug testing positivity rates for meth had increased by approximately 20%.

We must act now to prevent methamphetamine from turning into a full-blown national epidemic.” California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein

In her article, Sen. Feinstein called on the Office of Drug Control Policy to firstly declare meth an emerging drug threat, and secondly to “develop and implement a plan that is specific to meth. Addiction is complex, and while a crucial component of the overall U.S. strategy is to reduce the flow of drugs, the problem cannot be solved through law enforcement efforts alone.”

Senator Feinstein closed her opinion piece by stating, “We know that fentanyl and other opioids are ravaging our country, but we can’t ignore the risks that other drugs pose in the process.

We must act now to prevent methamphetamine from turning into a full-blown national epidemic. 

This is a problem that won’t go away on its own.”

Federal Government: First Response to Record Drug Overdoses

​​In response to the rising number of overdose deaths, the Biden administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy has made funding for substance abuse disorder (SUD) treatment and syringe service clinics a Federal priority – the first time a presidential administration has initiated a policy of harm reduction.

What is Harm Reduction? 

Harm reduction, in very simple terms, is the public health strategy of ensuring drug users come to no harm (and stay alive), even if they refuse the appropriate treatment and continue using.

Stopping all substance use (abstinence) is not a prerequisite before receiving care.

In practical terms, the main objective of harm reduction centers and syringe service clinics is to reduce deaths and serious infections, such as HIV and hepatitis, and to distribute free supplies to drug users, such as:

  • Sterile water and cookers to dissolve illicit drugs
  • Clean syringes
  • Alcohol wipes to prevent infection
  • Fentanyl testing strips (to see if their supply has been contaminated with opioids)
  • Naloxone, the medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose

It’s an enormous signal, recognizing that not everybody who uses drugs is ready for treatment. Harm reduction programs say, ‘OK, you’re using drugs. How can we help you stay safe and healthy and alive, first and foremost?’– Daliah Heller, Director of Drug Use Initiatives at Vital Strategies (a global public health organization)

teen meth use

How Dangerous is Methamphetamine Use & Addiction?

Methamphetamine is a potent, highly addictive, man-made psychostimulant. It is a powerful central nervous system (CNS) depressant, like opioids and alcohol, and produces an exceptionally intense rush of euphoria known among users as the “flash” when used. Users usually either smoke or inject meth, as these are the most immediate ways to get the drug into the body’s bloodstream and then the brain. The flash, however, is brief, lasting only a short time, and rarely longer than 30 minutes.

It is this instant, explosive flash of euphoric pleasure that has been found, in some cases, to be instantly addictive to first-time users. Additionally, meth induces a sense of confidence, hyperactiveness, and energy in the user, with these effects normally lasting from 6-8 hours. 

What is Crystal Meth?

Meth is most commonly abused in the form of crystal meth – a white, odorless, and bitter-tasting crystalline powder. The immediate effects of using crystal meth include:

  • The “flash”: an intense rush of euphoria
  • Alertness
  • Extreme self-confidence
  • High level of motivation
  • False sense of improved intelligence and cognitive abilities

How Damaging is Meth Addiction?

The illicit use of meth remains a serious problem both in the state of California and in the rest of the U.S., as it consistently results in more violent crime than any other illegal substance. Because extended use of the drug causes memory loss, aggression, and psychotic behavior, its misuse is constantly creating new criminals, high rates of child neglect and abuse, and increased unemployment. 

Additionally, addiction to methamphetamine has serious physical and mental health consequences for the individual addict. Long-term methamphetamine use can lead to:

  • Severe and constant confusion
  • Exhaustion
  • Damage nasal tissues
  • Malnourishment
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Permanent heart damage
  • Severe respiratory problems
  • Organ failure, eg. kidneys, liver, and lungs

In fact, only a few months of meth use can result in a severely altered and damaged appearance in users, as shown in the images below:

Pictures of Meth Addiction

Source: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC)

How Dangerous is Withdrawal / Detox from Methamphetamine?

Methamphetamine withdrawal occurs within 24 hours for a chronic user who stops using the drug. These withdrawal symptoms normally include: 

  • Fatigue
  • Increased appetite
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Confusion
  • Intense cravings for meth
  • Insomnia
  • Erratic mood, and
  • Violent behavior

However, long-term users can also experience psychotic symptoms, such as:

  • Paranoia
  • Delusions, eg. believing there are bugs crawling under their skin
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations

Important: Because withdrawing from methamphetamine can be a severe experience for the user, individuals are advised to undergo a professional medically-assisted detox in an accredited clinical setting.

Meth / Crystal Meth: Street Names

Meth has an array of alternative or street names, which include:

METH: CRYSTAL METH:
Beanies

Brown

Chalk

Crank

Getgo

Methlies

Mexican crack

Redneck cocaine

Speed

Tweak

Zip

Zoom

Crystal

Crystal glass

Glass

Hot ice / Ice

Shards

Tina

For Parents: How Do I Know If My Teenager is Using Meth?

It’s relatively easy to tell if someone has been using meth as there are distinctive tell-tale signs, which can include:

  • Rapid breathing rate
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Loss of appetite
  • Burns on the lips or nearby
  • Nosebleeds (from snorting)
  • Track marks on the arms (from injecting)
  • Increased physical activity
  • Nervous behavior, eg. picking at the skin
  • Erratic or violent behavior
  • Lowered personal hygiene
  • Secrecy
  • Socially withdrawal

Methamphetamine Overdose: What Should I Do?

As we have seen from the previous statistics, methamphetamine use (particularly binge use and even if you are a first-time user) can lead to an overdose, and if prompt medical treatment is not given immediately, it can be deadly. Avoiding either getting help or even refusing treatment because you are afraid to admit to meth use or you’re not actually sure whether you have overdosed or not can be a fatal mistake.

If you’re a user or a parent of a user, knowing what to look for – the symptoms of a meth overdose – can be critical to getting the medical care that is required. 

Meth Overdose: Signs & Symptoms

The early symptoms of a methamphetamine overdose, like many drug overdoses, look similar to simply being high on the drug. However, with an overdose from meth, there are notable differences. The signs and symptoms of a meth overdose, which can result in kidney failure, include: 

  • Respiratory problems
  • Heart attack / stroke-like symptoms, such as chest pain or confusion
  • Seizures 
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Excessive body temperature
  • Intense stomach pain
  • Loss of consciousness 
  • Hyper or aggressive behavior 
  • Paranoia

How Alcohol Affects Sleep Long-Term

Meth Overdose: Medical Treatment

In the event of a suspected meth overdose, call 911 immediately. If an ER visit is required, many hospitals routinely give naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, in case the meth used was contaminated. In the majority of cases, an overnight stay in the hospital is needed for monitoring. Treatment can involve IV fluids, heart monitor, and medications, such as: 

  • Benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety drugs) 
  • Beta or alpha-blockers (to regulate heart rate and blood pressure) 
  • Antipsychotic drugs (in the event of psychosis and/or hallucinations) 

SpringBoard Recovery Successfully Treats Meth Addiction

At SpringBoard Recovery, regardless of where you live, we can help you. Our professional drug and alcohol rehab facility is located in Scottsdale, Arizona – a non-stop flight between LAX (Los Angeles) and Phoenix is less than 1½ hours. We offer a range of professional drug treatment programs specifically designed to ensure you have the best possible chance to move on with your life, be opioid-free, and work towards a sustainable, long-term recovery.

Finding addiction treatment out of your home state can be a true blessing in disguise, enabling you to free yourself from all the distractions, influences, temptations, and possible relapse triggers of your local area. Contact us today for more information.

External Sources:

  1. County of Los Angeles Public Health: Meth-Free L.A. County. July 2021. Available at MethFreeLACounty.org.
  2. U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC): Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts” System. July 2021. Available at CDC.gov.
  3. Los Angeles Times: “Op-Ed: Washington Has to Help with L.A.’s Meth Addiction.” December 2020. Available at LATimes.com.
  4. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA): “2019 National Drug Threat Assessment.” December 2019. Available at DEA.gov.
  5. Millennium Health: Signals Report COVID-19 Special Edition. July 2020. Available at MillenniumHealth.com.
  6. United States Senator for California: Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. July 2021. Available at Feinstein.Senate.gov.
  7. U.S. Office of Drug Control Policy: Homepage. July 2021. Available at WhiteHouse.gov.
  8. U.S. Office of Drug Control Policy: The Biden-Harris Administration’s Statement of Drug Policy Priorities for Year One. 2021. Available at WhiteHouse.gov.
  9. U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC): Homepage. July 2021. Available at CDC.gov.

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WRITTEN BY GERARD BULLEN
JULY 29, 2021

Gerard has been writing exclusively for the U.S. substance addiction treatment industry for many years, providing a range of medically-reviewed work, including white papers, long-form, and short-form content articles, and blog posts for accredited addiction treatment centers. A member of the American Medical Writers Association, Gerard’s specific focus is substance addiction (an area that has impacted Gerard’s personal life in several ways), and he is particularly drawn to the topics of professional, evidence-based treatment, new and alternative therapies, and enabling readers to find their own sustainable, long-term recovery. Gerard lives and works in Maryland, U.S., he’s happily married, and a proud father. His interests include hiking with the family, reading fiction (from the classics to virtually all of the current NYT bestseller list), American and British film classics, and his beloved dogs, Toby and Coco, both rescued from the local pound.

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